Hugo Reviewed: Can Scorsese Cut It In 3-D?

It’s his best-looking film in more than 20 years, but are Marty’s sweeping tracking shots enough to keep viewers from dozing off?
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It’s his best-looking film in more than 20 years, but are Marty’s sweeping tracking shots enough to keep viewers from dozing off?

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This whole 3-D palaver would be much easier to dismiss as a fad were it not for the gravitas attached to the names of those touting it as the next step in the evolution of cinema. James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, and now –  with Hugo – Martin Scorsese – legends of filmmaking who have stated that they see the future in three dimensions, and all people who have put their money where their mouth is.

This is because, while we endure the odd Clash of the Titans or Deathly Hallows Part 2 (both of which were retrofitted into 3-D and not originally filmed in the format – lessening the effect while still charging us extra for the privilege), we also get an Avatar, a How to Train Your Dragon or a Final Destination 5 – all imperfect films, sure, but ones, in their own ways, which go some way in showing how 3-D can look when decently implemented.

Hugo’s 3-D, for the record, is handled exceptionally well, ensuring Martin Scorsese’s first stab at stereoscopy sits proudly in the latter camp. It still suffers from the endemic issues native to 3-D cinema projection (‘stuttering’ during quick camera movements due to the general inadequacy of 24-frames per second; the ‘ghosting’ effect, resultant of imperfect polarisation) yet the work here is of similar standard to Avatar’s as-yet-unbettered depth, and really does have a genuinely positive influence on the film as a whole.

The opening shot alone is something to behold: a high shot of a snow-flecked 1930’s Paris swoops majestically to street level, through steamy alleyways and between bumbling pedestrians, eventually gliding smoothly through a bustling train station before ascending to a close-up on the azure eyes of Hugo peering, through a high clock face, at the station’s patrons below.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living within the forgotten alcoves and maintenance corridors of the train station that is his home. He maintains the clocks of the station – if they aren’t correct, someone will come to investigate and discover him – and has a natural gift for fixing machines, passed on to him by his clockmaker father (Jude Law, seen only in a brief flashback).

Hugo’s only remnant of the happy life he once led is the automaton (a humanoid clockwork figure) his father discovered in a museum and pledged to restore. This task is now Hugo’s, yet the automaton requires parts, and these parts have to be stolen from Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès, the elderly owner of a shop within the station which sells clockwork toys.

It still suffers from the endemic issues native to 3-D cinema projection yet the work here is of similar standard to Avatar’s as-yet-unbettered depth.

Only this time it’s one theft too many: Kingsley catches Hugo in the act. Strays caught within the station are gleefully dealt with by Sacha Baron Cohen’s pompous inspector: a Clouseau-esque childcatcher who delights in delivering children to the orphanage. It is only the notebook Kingsley discovers in Hugo’ pocket, and the automaton designs within, that spare Hugo this fate, as Kingsley takes the book in exchange for Hugo’s freedom.

Hugo believes the automaton carries a message from his late father and it is his efforts to retrieve the notebook and uncover the secret of Kingsley’s interest in it (with the help of new friend Isabelle, played by former Hit Girl Chloe Grace-Moretz) that make up the majority of the narrative.

And it would be a nice enough tale, truth be told, were it not for the elephant in the room: the question of who exactly this film is for.

It’s a U certificate, so if you decide to take your sprogs to see it there won’t be anything that’ll make you have to invest in plastic mattress covers, but beware – this film will probably bore your children to such a tantrum that you may end up needing the mattress cover yourself. It’s not bad, more...sedate, with not a lot happening for extended periods of time, and little in the way of gripping tension or conflict.

The last third of the film is devoted almost entirely to an appreciation of early silent cinema, and the youth of today is surely far too preoccupied with drugs, stabbings and pregnancies to find time to pontificate on the mis-en-scene of the Lumière brothers, let alone sit down watch a film which revels in doing the same.

Adults may find more to appreciate in this regard, yet Hugo generally plays towards a younger audience in terms of tone, particularly in the slapstick efforts of Cohen’s cartoonishly gesticulative inspector (speaking throughout in a bizarre Welsh/South African patios) and his trusted cohort, the snarling doberman Maximillion

Hugo is difficult to recommend as a family film as there isn’t a family in existence without a member that will be bored by large parts of it.

Suggesting kids won’t be interested because there aren’t explosions, talking animals or vampires is of course, stupid. Many may find magic in the depictions of the manual, mechanical illusions of early film, yet there is a distinct lack of magic with Hugo itself, which even the masterful direction and photography of Scorsese (who hasn’t made a better-looking film since Goodfellas) can’t completely paper over. You find yourself enjoying the swooping depth of his tracking shots more than the plight of his characters, and this sense of the tail wagging the dog is perhaps due to the shortcomings of the established narrative in Brian Selznick’s source novel.

Asa Butterfield is excellent as Hugo, however; his still pathos and unwavering determination sell his character with little more than a glance, while Chloe Grace-Moretz is fine too, once she’s stopped concentrating on her (admittedly fairly faultless) English accent.

Kingsley is effortlessly eminent as the man plagued by a past he would rather forget, while the rest of the supporting cast is comprised of nothing less than big names (Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer) all appearing in oddly irrelevant cameos.

Hugo is difficult to recommend as a family film as there isn’t a family in existence without a member that will be bored by large parts of it, yet it’s so harmless, well made and optimistic that telling people they shouldn’t see it seems a little unfair.

But it’s either a pleasant, wistful journey through the history of silent cinema with a bit about an orphan and his robot stuck at the front, or the story of an orphan and his robot with a bit about the history of the history of silent cinema stuck at the back. Either way, it just doesn’t hang together well enough to succeed at the level it desires – it’s a film the people involved really wanted to make, rather than a film that really needed to be made.

As it stands, Hugo is an average, inoffensive couple of hours, elevated immeasurably by the talent of those who made it.

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